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Inez KillingsworthMythbuster: Inez Killingsworth

Community Activist

Ms Killingsworth passed away January 17, 2013. Read the Cleveland Plain Dealer's moving tribute to this great lady: Inez Killingsworth, janitor turned statewide crusader for homeowners


Date of interview: August 2011

At 62, when she "retired" and could have kicked back and coasted into her golden years, Inez Killingsworth began her second career: as the tell-it-like-it-is, community champion and guiding force at what is now Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People. For her, and ESOP's, relentless efforts to put a stop to banking irregularities and predatory lending, not just in Cleveland, but nationwide, she received the $100,000 Purpose Prize last Fall.

On a late August afternoon at ESOP's downtown offices—where there was an outbreak of cheering when a staffer announced he'd helped a Cleveland family save their home—Inez shared her thoughts about growing up in the South, becoming a community activist, swimming with "sharks," and her very purposeful plan for spending the Purpose Prize.

Where were you were born and raised, and what did your parents do?

I was born January 10th, 1938, in Lexington, Mississippi. My parents were sharecroppers, raising cotton and corn and I was raised on a farm. We had cattle, too, but only for our personal use. Early on, we had mules to do the plowing, then we got a tractor. Now my parents are gone and I own the farm. I lease it, and they still grow cotton and corn there.

I attended school in Lexington and went to a private school during my high school years. From there, I went to junior college for a couple of years. But I wasn't majoring in anything specific, though I was always interested in international relations, and about different nationalities and how people blended in, or didn't, or should have. People are really so similar, and the fact that people always have to get in this corner or that corner, that's always bothered me. We are all humans.

Was there anything special in how you were raised that helped shaped who you are today?

I was raised very religious. At home I learned you go to school, you work and you go to church. That's what my life revolved around then...and that's pretty much what it revolved around now.

Growing up it never dawned on me that my father was one of the troops of the Civil Rights Movement. He was one of the "field soldiers," one of the people who was going out and making the path. You'll never find mention of him anywhere, but he was out there doing things.

I'd be in bed when he'd come home from thingsand supposed to be asleepand he'd talk to my mom, telling her what his day was like. I was fascinated, and somehow what he was doing became what I wanted to do...He was making a difference in people's lives, and that's what I wanted to do. But the important thing was to help them do what they needed to do, not do it for them. And that's what my dad did.

My mom, she was more the person at home. She took care of the house and made sure that my father had the time and the room to do what he needed to do.

When I finally started thinking about what I was doing, I realized that I was doing what my dad did. He was always about fairness, about making sure that things were just. And that's not just what he did, that's how he was.

You grew up in Mississippi and came of age during the turbulent 1950s. How do you think that influenced the person you are today? Or did it?

My father was very active in the Civil Rights Movement, but I never heard him call it that. And I never talked with him about what he did. [Laughs] Like I said, I was supposed to be asleep when he was telling mother all those things.

I do remember being afraid for his life, though. One time I remember him coming home and telling mother that something had happened and he'd just laid down in a field and stayed there so no one would see him. But that kind of stuff didn't stop him. And later on, when I'd established ESOP, one thing I remembered from him was that one person can't do somethingsay go up against the bankbut many, standing together, can. There really is people power. Look at the Constitution. It says of, by and for the people.

People have rights, but they have to utilize them and they have to utilize them the right way.

When did you move to Cleveland, and what brought you here?

I moved to Cleveland in 1959, when I got married...When we [she and husband Robert] moved here, we first lived off E. 66th Street in the Hough area. Then, we bought a house in the Union-Miles area.

I'd been living in Chicago, and working in a factory that made bubble gum machines. I met my husband, he was a friend of a friend, when he came to the house to visit my brother.

Research says you got your first taste of community organizing because of stray dogs bothering your children as they walked to and from school. When was that, and what's the story there?

That was after we'd moved into our house in the Union-Miles area. From our porch we could see Miles Elementary School, but my children were afraid to walk to school because of the stray dogs. Not just one or two dogs, this was a pack of dogs, and I had to get a stick to chase them away so the kids could go to school.

One day this organizer [Anne Pratt] from the Union-Miles Community Coalition came to the house and knocked on the door. She asked me if I could make a change in the neighborhood, what would it be?

At first I just kind of ignored her. I thought, with her long dress and long hair, she was a hippy. And besides, I didn't think I could change things. But she kept coming back to the house and asking me to go to meetings. I thought if I went that I'd get rid of her. But it didn't happen that way. At the meetings people talked about all kinds of issues but no one was addressing mine. So I got up and said: I want to get rid of these darned dogs.

It turned out that a lot of other people were having a problem with the dogs. And Anne asked us what we needed to do to make the problem go away. We all said we needed dog catchers but, even though the city was supposed to provide them, there weren't any coming into our community. Then she asked us what we needed to do to change that. It took some discussion, but eventually we ended up going down to City Hall. And we got dog catchers to come and get the dogs.

We had worked together to solve the problem, and that felt good. And that's how I got started, because I realized that when you take action you can make things happen.

So, after the dogs were gone, why did you stick with the organization, eventually becoming its President and spearheading transformation of the "Committee" into the Union-Miles Development Corporation?

I joined because I realized that being in a group was a way to get things done for the community...W]hen people are organized into a group they create a force that can make [positive] changes for their community.

It was at those meetings that I started realizing that the banks had red-lined the area and wouldn't finance homes there. They would finance someone to purchase a Cadillac, but not to purchase a home.

You weren't just active in the community, you were working full time in the community, too. Right?

I was at Alexander Hamilton Middle School, and my title there was janitor, but I was doing a lot more. I was available for whatever the needs of the school were. I got involved in things with the principal all the way down to the custodians.

[Laughs] I had a way with the students so the principal and the teachers would work with me to get them back in the classroom when they got thrown out...Or sometimes the principal would send me students who were a step away from being suspended, to do afterschool community service. And while we were working togethersweeping halls, cleaning bathroomsI'd talk to them about how it was better to be on the inside getting something than on the outside looking in.

Today I see a lot of "my" students, all grown up and working, and they remember me, though I don't always remember them. [Laughs] One is the associate minister at my church, and I remember corralling him and dragging him to the principal's office...It continues to surprise me the influence that a person who cares can have on a child, but they do.

And I was out in the community, too. Let me give you an instance. Right next to Alexander Hamilton there was a motel, and students saw everything that was going on there because one side of the building, with classrooms on three floors, faced it. We, people from the community, people from the school, worked with the Attorney General to get the motel closed down. Today, it's a senior citizens' building.

How did you make everything your job, being a community leader, raising five kids work?

Sometimes when I look back I am amazed, but it was no struggle to do it. It was just what you did. And when people saw what I was trying to do, they were almost always helpful, because they, too, wanted things to change, but they couldn't be out front to do things.

It's pretty much impossible to do the kind of activism you became involved in without support from your family. So, how did you make that work?

My husband had a cleaning business and we had a neighborhood store, a combination of a deli and fish store. He was always supportive, always telling me: "Keep doing what you do." He passed in 1979.

And the kids were always pretty good. In fact my second child now works in Washington for the IRS as an analyst. She's also Vice President of Federal Employed Women, and she does a lot of the same kinds of things in that organization that I'm doing here.

Research indicates you feel your "crowning achievement" was your "vision to create the East Side Organizing Project" better known as ESOP in 1993. What was ESOP when you founded it? In other words, what were its goals and mission.

Let me go back for some history on this. ESOP was ESOP before we left the Union-Miles Community Development Corporation (U-MCDC). It started out around 1989 as U-MCDC's Educational and Safety Organization Project and worked on community educational and safety issues. And it got started because we wanted to get rid of that motel next door to Alexander Hamilton. But there were other issuesincluding the growing number of housing foreclosures in the community and the lending practices that were causing themthe committee wanted to work on. The Development Corporation couldn't devote the time or resources to focus on those issues, so in 1993 I spoke with the Board about creating a separate organization that could deal with those problems. With $35,000 from U-MCDC the Educational and Safety Organization Project became the East Side Organizing Project.

Funding has always been an issue, so we haven't always been able to do the things we hoped to do, but the seed we planted [in 1989] is still growing. Today ESOP is statewide with 10 offices, but now we are Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People.

So what led you, in 1993, to approach the Board about focusing ESOP on housing issues?

At monthly meetings we'd talk about community issues, we started noticing that fewer and fewer people were there. After one meeting, another Board member and I, Mark Siefert [now Executive Director], started walking the neighborhood and we saw all these foreclosed and boarded up houses. And we knew who used to live in those houses because they used to come to meetings.

But no one was talking about this at community meetings, so at the next meeting, we brought it up, and three senior citizens told us that they were going to lose their houses. Their stories were all the same, and when we started looking into who their lenders were, it was three different companies, but they all had the same phone number. That's when we started unwinding what was going on. And the more we unwound things we had a bailiff come and explain how court procedures worked in a foreclosure the more we realized we had a predatory lending situation. And that people were getting ripped off because they didn't know their rights and how to fight foreclosure.

ESOP tracked lending practices and procedures all the way to Washington, and that's when we realized how widespread the problem was. We got meetings with a couple of lenders and banks... [and] a couple of them said they'd change practices for Cleveland . That just irritated us because they were doing something that wasn't right and they were trying to buy us off. [*Note: According to a September, 2010 Plain Dealer article, 24% of Cleveland loans were subprime/predatory; nationwide it was 12%.]

We told them, no. And that we are going to keep telling the story about what they were doing till things changed nationally.

ESOP has always been know as a feisty organization, one that gets things done. Can you share a couple of examples of the tactics ESOP used to get banks and lending institutions to come to the table with ESOP to solve problems?

We never think of predatory lenders as banks or lending institutions, we always think of them as loan sharks.

We always send letters and make calls asking for a meeting to resolve issues for the clients we are working for. If we are totally ignored, we find their office or where they [company officers] live and we leave a note about setting up a meeting. And we pass out flyers, in their building or to their neighbors, about what they are doing. And we leave small plastic sharks around, too, because that's what they are, sharks. If the company's headquarters is someplace else, we send media releases to their local papers about what they are doing here and how they are hurting people in Cleveland, and we ask them to write a story.

With that kind of exposure, companies tend to do two things. They try to "brand" [discredit] ESOP, or they come to a meeting because they don't want more negative publicity. One company we had to work on a long time. Now they are one of the best loan services we work with because they finally realized that ESOP's goal was to resolve everyone's issues.

Representing ESOP, you have testified before Congress about the huge impact predatory lending and the housing foreclosure crisis have had on not only Cleveland but the nation. What was it like, "speaking truth to power?"

That was in 2008, and it was a little scary. I didn't know what they would do or how they would take the information I was bringing to them. But the other side of that was that I was there and they were listening. Prior to that, no one was listening.

They asked really good questions. One was: Why did I think all these foreclosures were taking place? And I told them it was greed that had snowballed. It wasn't just a few companies that were targeting poor people and people with poor credit histories for predatory loans, it was the whole financial system.

Testifying before members of the Congress was one of the best things that could have happened for the predatory lending and foreclosure issues.

Why and when did the East Side Organizing Project become Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People? And what caused that transformation?

When we went statewide in 2008, we changed the name to focus on Ohio's people, so we were able to keep the same initials. [Laughs] And we've already started looking at the name we might use if we ever go national. Right now we are thinking maybe Organizing and Strengthening Ordinary People...and one of our ESOP models to reduce principal and prevent foreclosure is being used in 33 states. And in other countries, too.

Other countries?

Oh yes! We have an international footprint...When the financial crisis was really peaking in 2008 and 2009 we had a lot of international media interviewing us. More, really, than national or local media. [Laughs] They were camped out here.

In fact, there's a French documentary out Cleveland vs. Wall Street and it has won several international prizes. One of the ex-officio board members was a key person in that film. She traveled all over, to France and Switzerland and places like that, talking about what we were doing here...And all because zip code 44105 had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. And that's right where we were working, where we started out, actually.

Right now, ESOP has an executive director and about 50 employees in offices all over the state. So what's your role in ESOP today?

I'm just the founder and president of the Board. Nothing revolves around me, though I do work very closely with the executive director, promoting ESOP telling the story of the organization and attending meetings representing ESOP.

I was sick the first of the year, [with colon cancer], but things were in place at the Board and at the office level to keep things rolling. And that's due to the staff.

The staff is dedicated. They know they are here to fight for, advocate for, support and back-up homeowners...They [staff] are the soldiers out there on the front line. And they work with the lenders too, convincing them it's better to get something from the homeowner on a regular basis than to leave a house vacant.

Last November you received a $100,000 Purpose Prize from the national nonprofit Civic Ventures in recognition of your and ESOP's work in preventing foreclosures in Ohio and your work at the national level in foreclosure matters. You were one of only 5 American's to receive the prize. What did you, and are you doing with the money?

ESOP got something, and I had some personal needs I was able to take care of, and I made a donation to my church, and I've been doing a little traveling.

And I'm using some of it for a program to help former felons. When they get out, they can't get a job because their record keeps popping up. If we don't address that situation and in this economy doing that's going to be difficult then there's just more chaos in their lives. I saw a program in Chicago, called Clean Slate, that helped people coming out of prison get jobs. The program puts them through training and skill-building programs so they have new skills, and works with them on motivation and self-esteem. And it works with employers, to get them ready to hire the people, give them that second chance.

I want to bring Clean Slate to Cleveland.

When you retired from your school job in 2001, did you realize ESOP would become a second career?

[Laughs] That was my plan.

What's the most important life-lesson you have learned – so far – because of your involvement with ESOP?

That people can make a difference. I have always believed that you are here for a purpose.

And to never give up. You have to keep persevering. If you give up roll over and play dead because what you are working on isn't happening for sure, it won't happen. But if you keep after it, somewhere you make a difference.

Not only are you personally and intimately involved with ESOP, you volunteer with your church, the Fourth District Police Department, the Union-Miles Development Corporation, and a local food bank, who knows where else. Where does all the energy come from?

I get my energy and inspiration, I believe, from God. I believe He's given me tasks, things to do.

And I read the scriptures. One of the books that really inspires me is the Book of Ester. What I see there is how persistent she was.

And doing things that are going to help people, that gives me energy, too. If it's only one person who's been helped, that's OK. They help someone else, and they help someone else, and on and on and on.

Why is it important to you to be involved in such a variety of volunteer activities and organizations?

That goes back to what our Father tells us: Wherever you tread your feet, I've already given that to you, but you have to take [ownership of] it, too. You can't just sit there and do nothing...That's defeating the purpose.

I do a lot with my church, Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, because I love it.

The food bank is something that I've always loved because it's hands-on. Years ago, before it really took off, I started helping a friend [Judy Long] there. It started as way for citizens to help citizens. And it started small. Judy would go to the bread factories around town and collect left-over bread. Once the people found out what she was doing, we started needing a truck to pick up the bread. And we'd bag it and pass it out...One time, we passed out 45,000 bags, of food, not just bread. [Laughs] I'd work my backside off at night filling bags. Eventually, it became one of the larger food banks in Cleveland.

MythBusters is all about aging successfully...which is something you are definitely doing. At 73 and with years ahead of you what's your definition of successful aging?

When you can see the benefits of your work. When you can see the results of your efforts. No matter what you are striving for, if you can see some good coming out of what you have done, and what you are doing, you are aging successfully.

You seem very physically fit. What are you doing on a daily basis to stay that way?

I eat well. I eat a mix of the foods I grew up with in the South and those are pretty rich foods and I eat a lot of fruit and fruit juices. And I don't eat a lot of starchy foods.

I used to be out and about always I've never been able to just sit still but with the setback I had recently, I've been in the house more. But that just means I've been reading more.

You're sharp mentally, too. Are you doing anything to make sure you stay that way?

I read the papers. And I've been reading some really good books lately. And I have a computer at home and I use it, a lot. And I watch C-Span a lot too. But I'm not much for Fox News. It kind of depresses me.

Most of this interview's been focused on your work with ESOP, and your volunteering. So the question is, what do you do to relax, recharge the well, get your mojo back?

I read. When I was going for [chemotherapy] treatment, I kept a book in the car to take with me.

For me reading is relaxing, and interesting, too. I don't like fiction, I like books about issues, about government. One I'm reading right now is called The Family, about the Bush family. Sometimes, I admit, the books I'm reading make me so angry I stop for a while. But I always mark the page, so I can go back.

I do a lot of Biblical reading, too, especially Psalms. It really ministers to you.

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